Should There Be Gender and Racial Quotas for the US Congress?

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Why you should care

Because equal population numbers do not usually mean equal political representation.

This week: Should there be gender and racial quotas for the U.S. Congress? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

If you read the headlines, there’s a “pink wave” set to sweep America this November. With a record number of women having entered midterm races, it looks like women’s representation in Congress is set to take a major step forward. But is such progress nearly enough to make up for the long-standing and persistent underrepresentation of women in American government?

Women make up more than half of the U.S. population but still less than 20 percent of congressional seats. And, when compared with the rest of the world, the U.S. is doing worse than before, not better. The U.S. ranked 41 out of 177 countries in female legislative representation in 1997. Twenty years later, America comes it at No. 102, trailing countries like Rwanda and Bolivia, whose parliaments are now half composed of women. Why are so many other countries surpassing the U.S. on this front? One of the main reasons: gender quotas. Forty of the 46 countries that now enjoy more than 30 percent representation by women have such quotas.

Electoral quotas have been something of the rage in recent years.

Should the U.S. embrace this growing trend, including setting both gender and racial quotas for Congress? After all, even though the 115th Congress is the most racially diverse in history, non-White members (including Blacks, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans) make up 19 percent of the body (but 38 percent of the population).

Electoral quotas have been something of the rage in recent years. Several countries in both Europe and the Middle East — including Libya, Tunisia and Iraq — have now embraced quotas to enhance female political participation, and around 90 countries globally employ them. More than 30 countries worldwide also reserve seats in their parliaments for representatives of minority groups. Singapore, for example, employs racial quotas in everything from political representation to public housing in an effort to fairly allocate opportunities between its majority Chinese population and its minority Malay-Muslim and Indian ethnic groups.

Are such quotas necessary to bolster representation levels and hasten progress? “Democracy has failed women,” says Drude Dahlerup, a professor of political science at Stockholm University and a global consultant on electoral systems and gender quota systems. “In spite of recent increases, 100 years of women’s suffrage has not fundamentally changed male dominance in politics in the old democracies.”

Proponents of quotas argue that they help guarantee women and minorities equal representation and ensure that their voices get heard in political life. And research on the impact of gender quotas suggests that such policies are effective. A recent study found that not only did women’s representation double on average — from 10 to 20 percent — in countries where quotas were implemented, but the improved representation also tended to shift government priorities, including away from military spending and toward public health.

Still, many countries including the U.S. remain hesitant to enact quotas because it means giving some individual candidates a preference over others — and in a way, that may limit voters’ range of options. Dahlerup has heard such objections frequently, including that there are not sufficient qualified female candidates, but she says that most such negative predictions about quotas never materialize. The bigger challenge is likely how best to implement them given the U.S. electoral system. Many countries employing quotas also have proportional representation systems where parties can nominate ranked lists of candidates, as opposed to the “winner take all” single-member district system in the U.S. that makes it harder to guarantee winners from the underrepresented population. Still, other countries with similar systems have succeeded in bolstering representation with quotas, says Dahlerup — for example: France, with gender quotas resulting in 39 percent women elected — by requiring political parties to put forth a proportional number of candidates from each group.

What do you think? Should the U.S. do more to ensure there are more women and underrepresented minorities elected to Congress? Is a quota system the best way forward? Let us know via email or in the comments below.

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